No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

The Importance of Relational Self-Reflection in the Health and Safety Profession

Do you ever reflect on your work as a health and safety professional? Of course you do. But how? By focusing on yourself and your choices?

The self does not exist independently but only in relation to others and the outside world. Self-reflection should not be a quest to become more oneself, but to discover how to navigate the unfamiliar world. The modern individual idealizes autonomy and self-sufficiency but is in reality intertwined with others. For intellectual and emotional development, it’s important to be physically present and to share emotional experiences. We then feel we are part of something larger.

We both have the desire for autonomy and the need for social recognition. Sociologist Ruben Jacobs wrote an essay, based on anthropologist René Girard’s model of mimetic desire. Girard argued that human desire always occurs in a triangular relationship, where one person desires what another person has, creating rivalry and jealousy. According to Girard, humans are not capable of desiring themselves; they need a model, whether it be a parent, friend, enemy, or idol. Mimetic desire is deeply ingrained in human learning, as it’s facilitated by mirror neurons that simulate other people's actions and emotions in the brain. Girard calls this mimetic force the romantic lie, as it leads us to believe in the illusion of an autonomous self that makes individual choices and has free will. The truth is that humans are largely controlled by their well-developed and unconscious mimetic ability. The individual exists primarily in relation to others and not on its own.

In our work in health and safety, it’s important to reflect on what we do. We should develop ourselves into creative professionals who are able to reflect professionally on ourselves. When reflecting on our work, we should consider the social and relational context in which our decisions are made. Instead of simply focusing on our own choices or solely on the ones of others, we should reflect on the relationships and power dynamics at play, and how these factors may be influencing decision-making.

Health and safety professionals benefit from being physically present and sharing emotional experiences with others. This can help us to understand the emotions and motivations of the people we work with, and to build stronger relationships with colleagues and stakeholders.

The concept of mimetic desire highlights the influence that social norms and models have on our behavior. As health and safety professionals we should reflect on the impact that social norms and expectations may be having on our work, and how these norms can be both helpful and limiting.

If we find ourselves experiencing reflection fatigue, it may be because our current reflection practices are based on outdated  Cartesian or Freudian models of the self. We then should consider adopting a more relational understanding of the self, and reflect on how our work is influenced by our relationships with others.

By reflecting on our work from a relational perspective, we can become more creative and innovative in our problem-solving. We can draw on the knowledge and perspectives of others - e.g. workers and engineers - and work collaboratively to develop effective solutions that take into account the complex social and relational context of our work.


Jacobs, R. (2016), Naar een relationeel zelfbeeld in het (hoger) onderwijs: ‘Het gaat altijd over ons’, in: Nivoz Platform hetkind.